Lining the window ledges of producer Joshua Safran’s office on the Brooklyn set of Smash is an eclectic assortment of DVDs, including the 1956 classic Anything Goes, 1998’s glam-rock cult fandango Velvet Goldmine, and the 1981 stalker flick The Fan. ”These are only half of [my collection],” admits Safran. ”I brought everything Broadway-related from home.”
Safran’s looking for inspiration from all of these and more now that he has the biggest job of his career: running — and rebooting — NBC’s ambitious musical drama Smash. The series, which had one of the best pilots of last season, promised a juicy tale following the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. With a ubiquitous marketing campaign — From executive producer Steven Spielberg! — a post-Super Bowl premiere, and the high hopes of newly installed NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt (who had brought over the project from his previous employer, Showtime), Smash carried the burden of unrealistic expectations when it debuted in February. Behold: the show that will save NBC!
Cut to a month later. NBC — satisfied with the weekly audience (9.3 million viewers, including DVR) but unsure about the creative direction (two words: nut allergy) — announced that Smash‘s creator, playwright Theresa Rebeck, would not be returning for the show’s second year. Safran, a theater fanboy who was finishing out his contract as showrunner for The CW’s Gossip Girl, quickly had his agent set up a meeting. ”It’s everything that I love and want to see in a television show — it’s fabulous actors and songs and theater and New York and fashion and glamour,” says Safran. ”Of course there were pieces that for me were frustrating as a viewer and a writer, but that’s true of anything I watch. I immediately connected to it on such a cellular level that I wanted to go in and just go ‘Lemme see — if I did this, what would happen?”’
So this past spring the 37-year-old met with Greenblatt, Spielberg, and Smash’s myriad exec producers, including Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Hairspray), to lay out his vision. The pitch worked, and he was officially handed the reins for season 2 in April. So what will the new Smash (premiering Feb. 5) look like? ”If you loved Smash last year, you are not seeing a radically different show,” explains Safran. ”And that was important to me because I loved Smash last year.” In his first sit-down interview since landing the job, Safran tells EW what viewers will see (more music) and what they won’t (those god-awful scarves).
More of the People You Love, Less of the Ones You Hate
Season 2 picks up weeks after the finale with Karen (Katharine McPhee) returning to New York after drawing raves for her out-of-town debut as Marilyn Monroe in Bombshell. Meanwhile, Ivy (Megan Hilty), who slept with Karen’s now ex-fiancé, will be trying to rehab her image. ”Ivy discovers that potentially her contract might not be renewed for Broadway,” says Safran. ”In regards to her behavior last year, she doesn’t want the world to find out, and wants to look like she’s still a valued member of Bombshell.”
Most of Smash’s core cast, including lyricist Julia (Debra Messing) and composer Tom (Christian Borle), producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston), and director Derek (Jack Davenport), will remain on the series. But part of Safran’s pitch was to jettison the characters who made season 1 polarizing, particularly Eileen’s manipulative assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), Julia’s husband, Frank (Brian d’Arcy James), and their downright annoying son, Leo (Emory Cohen). Explains Safran, ”In some cases the characters had done such unforgivable things that it was hard to walk it back. In other cases, the departure of those characters added to stakes that were necessary for season 2.” But expect Ellis, Leo, and Frank to pop up — if only for a scene — this season.
Better Style for Everyone!
Much of the love-hating of Smash centered on Julia’s unflattering wardrobe of chunky scarves and sweater coats. Smashionistas, your complaints have been heard. ”Coming into a show second season gives you that rare chance to step back and go ‘What can I change?’ So we were able to [revisit] things like the scarves. We address it head-on.” Taking a page from his Gossip Girl gig, Safran is also gifting the rest of the cast with more fashion-forward wardrobes.
New Faces and New Shows-Within-the-Show
While last season focused almost solely on Bombshell and its attempts to get on Broadway, the world of Smash will now be much broader in scope, with at least three new musicals and a crop of fresh characters, including Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson as Veronica Moore, an actress who mentors Karen. ”Ronnie is pretty much what Ivy and Karen hope to be,” says Safran of Hudson’s character, who will appear in three episodes. ”She’s the best-case scenario — she’s a multiple Tony winner. She offers Karen this advice of ‘Making it is one thing and staying there is another.”’
On the other end of the spectrum are struggling composers Jimmy (Newsies‘ Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle (Andy Mientus), who work at Table 46, a bar based on real Broadway hangouts Joe Allen and Bar Centrale. They’re writing an edgy rock musical about fame called Hit List. ”What makes seasons of theater interesting is all about the juxtaposition of styles,” says Safran. ”We talked about Next to Normal going up against Billy Elliot. Avenue Q and Wicked.”
Cooler Music (and No More Bowling Alley Sing-Alongs)
”For me, the biggest thing that separates us from Glee is that original music is the major component of Smash,” says Safran. So expect new songs from Bombshell as well as the debut of Hit List tunes, which are being crafted by a group of rising Broadway songwriters, including Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story: The Musical). There will still be covers, like songs by Death Cab for Cutie and Robyn, but Safran says he’s put a stop to those more ludicrous musical moments. Promises the producer, ”There’s no bowling alley sing-alongs. There are fantasy sequences, but so far not on the level of the Bollywood [number]” from season 1.
That’s not to say that Smash is turning into a quiet drama. Broadway loves a spectacle, after all. Says Safran, ”In any season 2 the hope is that you can go even further than you did before, in terms of entertainment value, production value. We have more music this year. We have more musicals this year. Hopefully, people want to see more.”